HARARE, Zimbabwe — Four am in the highly populated suburb of Mbare, which is situated in the outskirts of Harare, is the waking up time for local drug dealer Jester. He’s got scruffy, unkempt dreadlocks and a lanky frame, but what’s distinctive about him are the numerous scars he bares, the result of four attempts already made on his life. Each attempt on the 24-year-old came from people within his drug network, yet in a country with staggering unemployment rates, there are few other options for survival, let alone for attaining wealth and status.
In the last attack, one of Jester’s trusted lieutenants tried to usurp him by stabbing him once in the thigh and in the lower back, but Jester managed to fight him off.
One would find it hard to believe that at 24 he has already made a fortune selling the most famous drug in Zimbabwe right now, mutoriro — a local name for a concoction of crystal methamphetamine and anti-psychotic pills.
The drug reportedly started appearing in Zimbabwe around 2016 and has since become famous, especially in the high density suburbs like Mbare — known as the Zimbabwean favelas.
Mbare is the result of an urban sprawl when cheap labor emigrated from Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi during the 1960’s to make up for Zimbabwe’s shortage of workers. This then led to the government building small council houses, which are quite similar to housing projects in the USA.
Nowadays with a population estimated at almost 200,000, Mbare is known as a major criminal hub where swindling, pick pocketing and muggings are regular occurrences, even in the daytime. In recent years, the lack of proper housing and sanitation led to the area having serious cholera and typhoid outbreaks.
The drug can make one high for over 24 hours, making them exceedingly intoxicated.
“l never sleep,” Jester yells.
This claim happens to be true for the man who is also his own customer. Mutoriro keeps him going; sometimes he’ll go as long as three days without sleep.
“l will only sleep when l am dead. Right now l must go work,” he says, as an explanation for his early morning dealings.
Five am sees him arrive at the local bus station, where he meets up with his supplier of anti-psychotic pills, locally called “Mangemba.” Anti-psychotic pills are generally administered to psychiatric patients to calm one, but in Zimbabwe they are also taken as a recreational drug, usually mixed with alcohol or marijuana scones. Jester’s supplier is a young man about his age who only elected to talk when handed US$40 by Jester for a two kilogram packet of the psychiatric pills.
The meeting soon ends. Further questioning reveals the young supplier, Reuben, is a lab technician at the local hospital’s psychiatric ward. He says being paid less than US$50 a month invited the need to earn some “extracurricular cash” through his dealings with Jester.
“l scratch his back he scratches mine. He needs the money, and l need those pills for my business,” says a guffawing Jester.
Ironically, even with his powerful status and wealth, he still uses the sewage infested slums where he grew up as his base of operations.
Jester’s raw crystal meth supplier is based in Mozambique, and delivery of the meth is made every two weeks. It’s sent through cross border haulage trucks, where it arrives after 48 hours.
Six am sees Jester at his home in the congested suburb, which doubles as his base of operations. Here he employs five young men barely out of their teens. Their job is to mix up the raw crystal methamphetamine and anti-psychotic pills.
The process is a simple one. The five young men all work in linear cohesion on the long table within one of the rooms in the base. The first guys crushes the meth until it is a powder, the second guy in the chain is in charge of crushing the anti-psychotic pills.
The third and fourth guys are in charge of mixing the two (the meth and pills), resulting in a brownish, powdery substance. The fifth guy then packages it into small baggies ready for dispatch on the streets.
The color is derived from the Mozambican meth, which is slightly brown.
The young packers get US$5 daily, along with one free toke.
After being mixed, the mutoriro is then given to the runners, who sell it in the neighborhood for US$4-US$5 per baggie.
On some days, Jester joins his workers in the packing process.
“What l learnt in the drug business is, sometimes you have to be hands on, because we have enemies all over,” Jester says. “These guys here working for me, though l pay them handsomely, they could be working for the enemy and try to kill me and take over my business.”
There’s little piece of mind in this dangerous business.
“Your greatest enemy are the ones closest to you,” he says, as he reveals about four stab marks on the base of his abdomen. “Things are tough in Zimbabwe, my friend, and we all have to make a living somehow, because without this l could be one of the numerous youths out there stealing and robbing innocent people. And l choose not to do that.”
In order to avoid being hassled by authorities, Jester has the local police on his payroll. One of his runners makes a “donation” of US$60 per week to crooked policemen in exchange for turning a blind eye.
There are few options to make a living for the nearly 15 million citizens of this nation in southern Africa. Zimbabwe has a staggering 90% unemployment rate, in its formal economy. It continues to face severe economic challenges and recently attained the second highest inflation rate in the world (second only to Venezuela). In what often feels like a hopeless land, it is no surprise most drug users are unemployed youths.
Some of those jobless kids spoke with The News Station, under the condition of anonymity, about their illicit habit. They say the drug is extremely addictive and was causing mental health disorders.
“With mutoriro, you can lose sleep for up to 72 hours. It is affecting us mentally, to be honest. l have friends who have becomes mentally unstable because they had become too addicted to it. I really wish we had another alternative which gives the same high as mutoriro, but unfortunately there is none,” a young user said.
The mutoriro craze has also witnessed some of the unemployed youths scavenging for discarded, old tubular light bulbs at rubbish dumpsites, so they can make smoking pipes of them. Before mutoriro arrived, people were into illegally brewed moonshines from Mozambique, but after recent crackdowns by authorities, they shifted to meth.
The lucky few who find the bulbs then proceed to sell them, with a good pipe said to be going for US$1-US$2, depending on the quality. They’re judged from cleanliness to the general condition of the light bulb.
Before a pipe is sold, it is first rinsed. Then it is fitted with a little plastic tube where the user sucks while smoking. The pipe is about 2cm in diameter, and it is locally known as “Vhokoso.”
“It has affected users negatively by having mental health challenges and also affected the central nervous system”Wilson Box
Crystal meth is banned in many countries due to its classification as a Schedule II narcotic in the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances treaty. In low to moderate doses, it can elevate one’s mood — increasing alertness, concentration and energy in fatigued individuals. It also reduces user’s appetites. However, in very high doses, it can induce psychosis, seizures and bleeding in the brain.
Chronic high-dose use can precipitate unpredictable and rapid mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations, delirium and delusions. Violent behavior has been the most commonly reported symptom of the drug.
In an interview with The News Station, Wilson Box, founder of the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), said the rise of mutoriro is causing health problems amongst the populace of Zimbabwe.
“Just like any new psychoactive substance, the realization that crystal meth can make one very high led to it to become an illicit drug of choice amongst our people. It has affected users negatively by having mental health challenges and also affected the central nervous system,” Box said. “We are having a lot of drug use awareness campaigns on dangers of drug use. We are also encouraging the government to put in place a drug master plan in Zimbabwe to mitigate challenges posed by illicit drug use.”
The government ought to increase its mental health budget, Box added, and establish rehab centers and introduce harm reduction programs to mitigate these challenges.
Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Nick Mangwana called for the declaration of a war on drug abuse, saying it was affecting many youths.
“We have to declare a war on drugs. They are frying our young people’s brains,” he tweeted earlier this month. “The amount of money some of these young people are spending on these immoral ventures debunks the “jobless” argument. Other young people are into farming, others into mining let’s help the lost ones.”
The 2020 Zimbabwe Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), launched on April2, 2020, indicates seven million people in urban and rural areas are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance across Zimbabwe, compared to 5.5 million in August 2019.
Since the launch of the Revised Humanitarian Appeal in August 2019, circumstances for millions of Zimbabweans have worsened. Drought and crop failure, exacerbated by macro-economic challenges and austerity measures, have directly affected vulnerable households in both rural and urban communities.
Inflation continues to erode purchasing power and affordability of food and other essential goods, which causes daily challenges for the people. The delivery of health care, clean water, sanitation and education remain constrained, thus millions of people find it challenging even to access these most basic services.
Faced with all these social and economic nightmares, it seems like this is the beginning of a bleak future for all Zimbabweans, as people could be forced to choose the illicit path Jester has taken, not out of choice but of necessity.